Monday, April 11, 2011

Hazare meets a wet blanket

by Shiv Viswanathan

Sociology as a vocation is often depressing. The ideas and theories one proposes go against the conventional grain. The recent events around Anna Hazare put me in that mood. The media are acclaiming the movement. TV commentators in particular have gone ecstatic with a ringside seat to revolution. Words like 'Ground zero' and comparisons with the recent demands for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia give India a feeling of global togetherness. Yet the more I watch it, the more puzzled I feel. Spontaneously, I am all with its demands. But sociologically I feel something does not make sense. What we are watching is a sociological simulacra, an imitation of a social movement that looks more authentic than the original.

The recent scams, the epidemics of scandals have left middle-class India tongue-tied. What is worse is that there seems to be no mechanisms either for outlining the truth or bringing the criminals to justice. Our institutional systems seem too slow or appear to be in the hands of corrupt politicians. Reform becomes an invitation for oxymorons. Politics seems to be a desert between India's achievements in sport and India's capability in technology. Our democracy seems to be emptying out in our ability to handle corruption.

Enter Anna Hazare, an old-style Gandhian. An ex-army havaldar who has introduced social reform in his village combating alcoholism and advocating drip irrigation. He is a Gandhian who believes in development and has the Magsaysay award to prove it. Hazare, who has been around on the fringes of the development debate, becomes an archetypal Gandhian. He decides to fast unto death if the Lokpal Bill is not passed.

The prefix 'Gandhian' always intrigued me. The word is used loosely. Even scholars who study Gandhi call themselves Gandhian. People influenced by Gandhi, involved in politics or social work, dub themselves Gandhian. All they imply is an ascetic life and an honest character. The complexity, the diversity, the chaotic nature of the Gandhian experiment is a distant memory. These Gandhians are simplified versions of the original. But the simplification is crucial. They are easy to grasp. They have a single-point value. Their morality is unquestionable, their social work visible; they become vectors of a middle-class dream.

Their message is simple: a fast unto death until the Lokpal Bill is passed. In four days, the fast is termed 'the second war of Independence'. People are galvanised and the media see in Hazare the makings of the second JP movement. Oddly there is little memory here.

The styles of politics are so different. JP worked with -isms and parties and fought both authoritarianism and corruption. Hazare's movement is anti-politician. His movement refuses to let any politician grab presence on the dais. Uma Bharati had to beat a hurried exit. The movement seems to be anti-politically political. Yet it encourages visitors from Anupam Kher to Meghnad Desai, who turns press conferences into quick tutorials. It is almost as if the movement originates on Page 3 with approval ratings from fashion designers, movie directors and the city glitterati.

There's a wonderful middle classness to it. Professionals drift to it; housewives, students, young professionals, a coterie of NGOs provide the voices for it. Although it's a mix of generations, there is a preponderance of youth. It almost appears a part of the new demographic dividend, a more youthful idea of politics. It conveys the right mix of professionalism, lifestyle and a need for a deep sense of integrity.

There is almost no sense of the usual agitations, with the violence of lathi-charges or arrests. This demonstration seems different. Politicians from Sonia Gandhi to Narendra Modi approve of it and the BJP and the CPI(M) express support. Yet to those who have watched Nav Nirman, or the Emergency campaigns, this one doesn't look like a movement. It's more like a happening.

The candlelight rituals publicised by Aamir Khan's movie and the Jessica Lall campaign also provide a difference in style. The excitement is high. An India proud of its democracy pans its politicians. There is something surreal about the amiability, the bonhomie. Even the answers sound like something from a market survey, endorsing Hazare like a brand name. He could have been a piece of toothpaste or a pair of shoes.

The space within which it is enacted seems magical. It is carnival time but it reverses no categories. It does not threaten the regime, triggers no violence. It's almost playful as a spectacle. It appeals to a whole beyond parties, claiming a politics outside politics. It is an invitation to a temporary utopia where actors enact new rituals of hope, new possibilities of empowerment.

The closest I can get to it is to say that it reminds me of the great millennial movements. These were usually led by prophets and these Christ-like figures promised a new reign of prosperity. The Anna Hazare movement as the Second Independence movement has shades of milleniality with those joining caught in an ecstasy of empowerment. The Millenialists felt bullets could not harm them and here protestors feel that authority can't touch them. They feel they are at the roots of law, creating law for a new era.

As a simulacrum, it seeks a different code of revolution through reform, of realism through innocence, by legislation through tantrums, appropriating Gandhian idioms. It seeks to create history without a sense of history, forcing global affinities where there are none. One meets it with a sense of celebration and doubt because standard categories do not quite capture the nature of this happening.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist. The views expressed by the author are personal.